Tension in a short story or novel is part of what keeps readers turning the pages, as do the storytelling, plot line and character development.
The dictionary definition of tension is the act of stretching something tight, or the condition of being stretched or taut.
A story that is taut does not have extraneous words, characters, dialogue or plot elements. Every aspect of the story is directed toward the climax, or the peak or most intense part of the telling.
Tension, as defined by the dictionary, is the balance between strongly opposing elements.
In a story, those elements are the external and internal opposition to the protagonist’s or main character’s achievement of a goal.
External opposition could come from the other characters or life events blocking the main character from getting what he or she wants. Internal opposition comes from a character’s negative thoughts, insecurity, lack of focus or other emotional state.
Tension, in other words, is the result of character conflict. Internal conflicts are about characters, while external conflicts are about plot.
Tension is essential because it keeps readers reading. Readers have a reason to feel connected with the main character, because he or she is in conflict and has an unmet goal. The character’s life isn’t perfect, giving readers a way to commiserate.
Tension is that key element that drives a story forward and escalates as the story progresses. A story doesn’t advance by events happening one after the next, but by this escalation.
The tension, however, should not follow a constant upward line where things get more and more intense, even in fast-paced thrillers and crime novels.
Varying the tension, as well as the pace, adds interest and intrigue to the unfolding of the story. Changing the pace – the tempo or rate of the story’s progression – shows the different moods and action in the story.
A slow pace includes narration, description and digression, while a faster pace uses action and dialogue (which creates a lot of white space on the page, letting the eye speed across the words).
Slowing the pace here and there emphasizes important moments in the story, so readers can experience the emotional impact. Plus, it builds the story slowly to maximize the payoff, or the climax.